League of Legends plans to dominate eSports with consistency, quality, and accessibility
League of Legends is big. The game filled a stadium with 8,000 fans, and drew in more than 1,154,000 concurrent viewers online during its season 2 championship. It has 12 million daily active players and 32 million monthly active players. It replaced StarCraft II as the number one eSport game in South Korea. But it could be bigger. More than that, developer Riot wants it to be better. The Report spoke with Dustin Beck, the company's vice president of eSports, and Chris Heintz, public relations manager at Riot, to discuss upcoming initiatives they hope will grow the service. In short: it's a good time to be a League fan, and an even better time to be an eSports fan.
Leagues of League of Legends
There are three tiers Beck wants to tackle with the upcoming eSports initiatives: consistency, accessibility to fans, and improving the game's broadcast system. It all starts with the next patch, when Riot unveils a new ranking system and league play. This league play system is similar to what you'll find in StarCraft II and Call of Duty: Black Ops II, where competitors are placed into one of several leagues and, within those leagues, divisions. The placement will be automatic, and will factor in current statistics to determine a player's league and division. Heintz said one of the goals of the new system was to make the stakes higher for each level of competitor. Moving up a ladder will help players feel like they're accomplishing something, and will also give a better measure of skill. “Instead of just having an arbitrary number assigned to your matchmaking rating, we place you in a league that assigns you a score rating. So I'm Gold, Division I, and if I get better, I get to the top of Gold, Division I, I'll have an opportunity to play in the playoff series,” he said. “If I win three of those five games or more, I'll progress, I'll become Platinum, and Diamond, and so it's just a better way to have bite-sized chunks of progression. Also, these high moments of competition… we have playoffs to reach the next tier or division, and that's another goal of the league structure.” The structure is inspired partly by the organization of real-world sports. Beck likened it to football. “There's elementary school and pee-wee league, and high school, and college with the NCAA – and there are different tiers within that – and the NFL. We've done a similar thing with our ranked system where you can compete at all those various levels,” he said. Heintz explained that the new ranking system will also provide players a clearer path to going pro. You'll know exactly where you stand compared to other players in your division, and you'll know exactly how far you have to go, and how much you have to improve. Conversely, you'll also be able to tell when you're ready.
The ranking system isn't just for player benefit. Beck referred to it as step one in creating an “ecosystem of competition,” and this ecosystem helps Riot as well. Teams and players will be easier to follow, and Beck said matches will be easier to standardize and organize. Once organized, those matches have to be made public so the game's audience can easily find and enjoy them. That's where lolesports.com, which launches in conjunction with the new patch, comes in. Beck said that Riot was going “all in” with their eSports initiative, and that meant giving the competitive side of League its own home. “If you want to follow football, you can go to NFL.com, but you can also go to ESPN.com, you can go to Yahoo! Sports, you can go to all these different sites to track it down, and we want the same ecosystem to exist for League of Legends,” Beck explained. “It will have bios on each of the players, some of the teams, it'll have their records, we're starting to now track statistics so if you want to compare how the top laners of CLG compare with MRN's top laner you'll be able to look at a side-by-side analysis of all of their key ratios and metrics and we're gonna have MVPs of the week… we're gonna have all that stuff coming out.” Beck said the lack of such information was a “huge hole” in the company's coverage, and he plans to rectify that soon. There may even be other features typically associated with real-world sports coming down the line. Fantasy draft, anyone? “Fantasy is something we're scrambling to get done. It won't be done for this start of the season, but hopefully for the second half,” Beck told me.
Beck said the site is being built with broadcast quality in mind. The team has brought in video crews with experience filming the Olympics and the NFL, and they've sunk a considerable amount of time into creating their own infrastructure. “We built our own broadcast studio in Los Angeles that's gonna be the home to all of the League Championship matches there, and then we're partnering with a group in Cologne[, Germany] - we're partnering with ESL, a studio out there. It is a big investment for us, but it's something that's going to create this awesome experience for our fans.” Quality wasn't the only factor they observed in real-world sports, the team also had to take into account the consistency of more traditional competition like football and basketball. Hence, League fans in North America will be able to tune in, just as they would to ESPN and the like, every Thursday and Friday. Fans in Europe will be able to check in on Saturday and Sunday.“Monday night football's great because you know it's every Monday,” Beck said. “League of Legends fans can now know what hours to expect it, they know when it's gonna happen, and they know it's gonna be highly-produced,” Beck said. “Teams are gonna be playing each other on a weekly basis, they're gonna start to know one another, they're gonna get in fierce battles. Just like the Yankees and the Red Sox have a rivalry, TSM and CLG are starting to have a rivalry. That's already exciting.” Beck wants gamers to treat League and its players the same way basketball fans treat the NBA and its famous athletes, and he wants lolesports.com to be the go-to destination to do so. “What makes Kobe Bryant such a polarizing figure? Why do folks follow Tim Tebow even though he didn't start a game this year?” Beck asked me. “It's that human interest piece that is so compelling for viewers, and it's kind of been missing in eSports: digging into who these guys are outside of the game.” Beck said Riot plans to rectify that, and the plan sounds almost straight out of reality television: “A lot of these players and a lot of these teams are now moving into team houses, where they're gonna be living with one another and they're gonna be playing League of Legends, practicing and streaming for over 10 hours a day,” Beck said. “We're sending some video film crews with some of the teams and players out of their home states and into LA. We follow them on their journey away from their family and friends and home states all the way to Los Angeles.” Beck said he also wants to see more light shed on the stories that have come out of League of Legends. “Team MRN, which is a team that barely made it into the online ranked qualifiers, is now a pro team, and if anything they're kind of that Cinderella story similar to a March Madness [story],” he told me. “They kind of came out of nowhere, just shocked the North American scene, and now they're in the League. And those guys, they're an online sensation within our community.” It's clear Beck wants to explore the “human element” of League of Legends, to give audiences something to explore and identify with. “I think that the human element is part of a larger bucket, which includes everything from getting those stories to elevating the broadcast experience.”
Leaguing the charge
It's clear from my time speaking with Beck and Heintz that League of Legends is not going away anytime soon. The game's user base is only getting larger, and the eSports initiatives will only help. The league ranked system will be more inviting to those who want to go pro, a quality broadcast system will make the game feel professional, and in-depth statistics will not only help scouts and pro circuit players, but should also give armchair summoners a new obsession. I argued with Ben awhile back that eSports would never be as big or successful as mainstream, traditional sports. Beck seems hellbent on changing the minds of people like me, and if his ideas are as successful and exciting as he makes them out to be, it just might work.